Mind before matter

The way placebos act upon the brain in order to heal the body

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Maya Kornyeyeva

The power of medical placebos is in the way they blend in, looking like a pill rather than something else in order to trick the mind into believing that it is medication.

By Maya Kornyeyeva, Carlmont High School

Relief beyond measure.

All the pain, gone. All the worries, evaporated.

But what could have caused this kind of change? What new science was at work inside the body, spreading a sense of freedom throughout the mind?

The answer is nothing.

Throughout humanity’s existence, stories of miraculous healing have dotted the pages of history books. Beginning with the ancient Greeks 2,500 years ago, the power of belief or placebo medication has had an incredible effect on those with various “untreatable” ailments.

This spiritual form of medicine quickly spread through China and influenced the creation of acupuncture. Hair-thin needles provided an easy escape from pain by redirecting the body’s energy, sending qi flowing through the different channels of the being.

Traveling to the other side of the planet, the concept of placebos helped create the basis of Western medicine. As placebos were integrated into the fields of psychology and medical science, methods of drug testing were transformed as cures for various diseases were produced more efficiently.

Still, the question remains. How do placebos really work?

The ins and outs of placebos


The real power of either a medical or non-medical placebo is in the way that a person responds to being treated. Typically, a medical placebo is given in the form of a sugar pill or water, and has no effect by itself.

When combined with belief, however, all the difference is made. Often, the will to get better and an overall trusting environment allows the brain to relax and begin functioning normally, essentially tricking the body into healing itself.

According to Gilead oncologist Sarah Oliver, Ph.D, being “blind” to the existence of a placebo is vital for the psychological effect to be adequately demonstrated.

“If the physician doesn’t know and neither does the patient, then the physician is excited to give the patient what they think is an active pill with the expectation that the patient will feel healthier. This in itself will have a powerful effect, even if the pill is not active,” Oliver said.

Having worked with pharmaceuticals for 10 years as well as at widely-known companies like Genentech, Oliver has had plenty of experience handling placebos.


Study: Curing The cough by Maya Kornyeyeva

According to Oliver, working in the field of oncology, the study and treatment of tumors, requires the use of placebos about 50% of the time.

“One of the benefits of using placebos is that it takes away human bias in response to medical therapy or tests,” Oliver said.

She continued to describe a study in which she tested the function of a pain-relieving drug. All the patients received placebos, and although the drug itself did not work, Oliver was still intrigued by the results.

“It was really interesting to see that even though some patients were given sugar pills, they still had their pain improve on average quite a bit,” Oliver said.

Similar studies have been conducted all over the world, with a very effective one performed by Luana Colloca, a professor at the University of Maryland.

As described in the book, The Magic Feather Effect by Melanie Warner, Colloca performed a blind experiment in which she delivered small amounts of pain to her patients using a hot pad. The amount of pain was shown through a green (80 F) and red (118 F) color on a computer screen.

Without the knowledge of the patient, Colloca kept administering the 118 F heat while changing the colors on the screen. The patients admitted to feeling lower pain during the presence of the green light, even though the amount of discomfort did not change.

Because of their belief that the green light meant less pain, the patient’s brain convinced itself to feel that way. Due to this innate response, the placebo effect was revealed as more powerful than ever.

However, the issue of ethics when conducting experiments with placebos is a complicated one.

Many times, a researcher will not be allowed to test a particular drug using placebos. Take, for instance, cancer. Cancer is a very serious illness, and withholding real medication from a patient that requires it is considered unethical.

This situation often arises in Oliver’s studies.

“Although we would scientifically want to [use a placebo], we are talking about people’s lives. It would be unethical to give them a sugar pill when we think there is actually something that will help,” Oliver said.

Placebos in a school environment


Six identical pairs of shoes pound the floor of the gymnasium.

Sophomore Bianca Johnson, the defensive specialist for the Carlmont JV volleyball team, shifts her weight from foot to foot.She and her teammates are ready to put their best efforts into this game.

Her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail with a black elastic band, but otherwise prepared in the same fashion as always, Johnson feels particularly lucky.

For me, playing well corresponds with my hairstyles. A normal high ponytail rather than a scrunchie [is my go to]. If I’m doing something a certain way, something’s going to work out for me.”

— Bianca Johnson

“For me, playing well corresponds with my hairstyles. A normal high ponytail rather than a scrunchie [is my go-to]. If I’m doing something a certain way, something’s going to work out for me,” Johnson said.

She has noticed something similar in the actions of her fellow players.

“Some people have certain shoes that they have to wear, typically Nike basketball shoes. Everyone wears them to do better in the games,” Johnson said.

Other Carlmont students feel the same way, not necessarily about shoes or hair, but objects that are close to the heart. These lucky objects are the epitome of non-medical placebos; the belief in such objects elevates their value tenfold, whereas by themselves, they would be less significant.

Elly Xu, a sophomore, wears such a placebo wherever she goes.

“The necklace I wear represents family. I don’t really wear jewelry unless it has meaning to it, and this one has an important symbol of family connection,” Xu said. “The symbol is a tree, with the roots representing my parents and the branches representing me and my brother.”

Elly Xu’s necklace is a symbol of a silver tree, with the roots representing her parents and the branches as herself and her brother.

Not only does this necklace create a feeling familial connection, but it also instills a sense of confidence in Xu.

“It makes me feel a sense of closeness to my family, who aren’t always with me. Sometimes, I do better on tests when I have it, and I think that as long as it is with me, I’ll feel more comfortable,” Xu said.

Adrian Fernandez, a senior, relies on a similar type of placebo to do well in exams and auditions. As an upperclassman preparing for the start of independence, he believes it is essential to feel a sense of comfort from family and hobbies.

“I have a picture in my violin case, and I rely on it constantly. Right before performances, tests, or anything that makes me nervous, I look at it to remind me who my biggest supporters are. That is something that calms me down and encourages me to do better,” Fernandez said.

Furthermore, students can also learn about placebos in psychology courses offered at Carlmont.

Michelle McKee, one of the AP Psychology teachers, has been teaching at Carlmont for 22 years. Although only a small part of the curriculum is dedicated to studying placebos and drug research methods, their power resonates deeply with McKee.

“The surprising reaction of patients to placebos says something about the power of positive thinking and its relationship to healing,” McKee said.

According to McKee, a more substantial part of the year is dedicated to belief in relation to different types of treatments and therapy.

“There is a type of therapy called cognitive therapy, in which a person strives to change their negative ways of thinking into positive ones. They work on shifting their beliefs about themselves in a more positive way,” McKee said.

Whether from a course offered at Carlmont or from a fellow student that benefits from placebos, knowing about their existence is vital to understanding the impact belief has on the mind.

“From their place in cultures around the world, placebos are incredibly fascinating. Although we don’t know exactly how they act on the mind, the amazing thing about them is the way they are accepted and used in society,” Oliver said.

Michelle McKee, one of the AP Psychology teachers, has been teaching at Carlmont for 22 years. Although only a small part of the curriculum is dedicated to studying placebos and drug research methods, their power resonates deeply with McKee.

“The surprising reaction of patients to placebos says something about the power of positive thinking and its relationship to healing,” McKee said.

According to McKee, a more substantial part of the year is dedicated to belief in relation to different types of treatments and therapy.

“There is a type of therapy called cognitive therapy, in which a person strives to change their negative ways of thinking into positive ones. They work on shifting their beliefs about themselves in a more positive way,” McKee said.

Whether from a course offered at Carlmont or from a fellow student that benefits from placebos, knowing about their existence is vital to understanding the impact belief has on the mind.

“From their place in cultures around the world, placebos are incredibly fascinating. Although we don’t know exactly how they act on the mind, the amazing thing about them is the way they are accepted and used in society,” Oliver said.

This story was originally published on Scot Scoop News on January 21, 2020.